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Engineering Engineering: Jobs with more creativity involved?

  1. Jan 31, 2013 #1
    I am feeling pretty confident about switching to engineering (from physics) now. I recently reread an interview between Elon Musk and Chris Anderson.

    Musk stated the following:
    I want a job that allows me to be inventive and creative. Doing the same thing over and over again seems pretty common in engineering though, from what I've heard. I've also heard people surprised at how engineering turned out to be a lot more of a desk-job than was expected. I don't care about working in an office in front of a computer, but I want my creative side to be challenged. I like solving problems with multiple hidden solutions: creative problem solving. I mean, obviously SpaceX is a place where you're supposed to be highly creative, but the competition to be in that company I would assume is pretty strong. If I was in a place where the limitations were very strict, I'd feel like I'd constantly be trying to scratch an itch.

    I want to avoid a job that basically becomes about a "process," reinventing old things with slight variations over and over again. According to Musk in this article, that's pretty common in the Aerospace industry, saying that rockets haven't changed much since the 1960s:

    So, starting now, about halfway through college, what can I be doing to avoid the "process" and begin working on something more creative? Ideas I've had are things like researching what companies and government organizations have their engineers do.

    It's also why I'm posting here.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 31, 2013 #2
    You have a few options for finding out what it is *really* like to work as an engineer. I'll list them from broader to narrower scope, and lower to higher veracity.

    • Read what the company says about itself. There is obvious bias here, but the information is easy to get.
    • Read company reviews on a site like glassdoor.com There is bias here too, the opposite of what you will find on the company's website. Remember that places like glassdoor attract disgruntled ex-employees, and rank companies higher mostly on compensation, no matter how Dilbertesque the company actually is.
    • Ask questions of people you don't really know. This is what is going on here.
    • Ask questions of people you do know. Network with family friends, old high school buddies, alumni of your school. Find out about places they have worked. I prize face-to-face communication, so I think this is more valuable than what I am doing right now.
    • Have you done any internships? That is an excellent way to see for yourself what engineering is like within an organization. This is probably the most informative, but you can only do a few internships.

    Engineering is a great place to be inventive and creative. There are definitely positions that are routine, and perhaps even whole industries that have become routine. Companies in the same industry will vary in how they value creativity, and even different parts of companies will do this differently. You need to do your homework.

    My own position is very creative. I am part of a small team that designed a new product, designed the manufacturing line, and now we are ramping that line up for commercialization. I get to be as creative as I want to be. However, I didn't start here. I began my career as a manufacturing support engineer. I fixed the day-to-day problems on the assembly line, and yes, that can get old. However, most of us need to learn the ropes somehow. This is the standard way of doing it.
  4. Jan 31, 2013 #3


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    To add to Ben Espen's bullet points:

    • Make sure you choose a realistic role model. I would be happy to bet a few dollars that you have as much chance of emulating Elon Musk as of emulating Usain Bolt.

    Musk made his money with a company (PayPal) that had a negligible risk of accidentally killing its employees or its customers. He's now gone to the other extreme of the risk spectrum with space rocketry. Most aerospace companies operate somewhere between those extremes, and there's a good reason why they are very, very risk averse. It's because they don't want stuff like this to happen:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/0/09/Kegworth_Air_Crash_Scene.jpg/260px-Kegworth_Air_Crash_Scene.jpg [Broken] _46742377_kegworth.jpg

    FWIW the primary cause of that crash was that somebody didn't "follow the process" and literally crossed some wires, so the flight deck instruments for the left hand engine were showing what the right hand engine was doing, and vice versa. And then somebody else didn't "follow the process" and didn't check the first guy had done it right!

    When there is a problem with one engine on a twin-engined plane, that's usually no big deal - unless the pilot then shuts down the wrong engine...

    There's no limit to how creative you can be in the aerospace industry - just made sure you don't invent new creative ways of doing stuff wrong.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  5. Jan 31, 2013 #4
    Elon Musk and Space X arent exactly the best role model.

    Space X is more about financing and turning an area of science that already has been done into something sustainable in the private sector.
    Its business innovation first.

    There is no way the computational and manufacturing advances of the last 50 years wouldnt have been a blessing when NASA first accomplished these space endeavors.
  6. Jan 31, 2013 #5
    Well, SpaceX hasn't put any ~humans~ up yet because they're doing stuff that's so new. They've got a great track record for their cost lowering and innovation, I must say though. Most "innovative" things in the aerospace don't go so well from the reading I've done.

    But aside from that, I like these responses. Contacting the company was one thing that crossed my mind. Finding internships is something I plan on doing as soon as I switch my major over, although I suppose if I take a few things in the engineering curriculum before switching it might qualify me for some.
  7. Feb 1, 2013 #6
    Excellent post by AlphaZero. Consider that different industries have vastly different risk profiles associated with them due to the nature of their businesses, so whilst not following a "process" in one industry may work, in others it could lead to mass fatalities.

    Don't pay too much attention to people trying to make deliberately controversial statements either, nor people without the necessary technical backgrounds making judgement on areas they have little understanding of. And it's easy to complain about an industry being risk averse when you're not the one who takes the fall when people die.
  8. Feb 1, 2013 #7
    I'll never sprint at 27 mph. There's maybe a one in a trillion chance I'll emulate Elon Musk.


    He's also merely the CEO, has a physics degree, not an engineering degree. He is somewhat of a prodigy, programming since he was 10 years old. But, he is the CEO and I'm not sure how technically involved he actually becomes in the development of the rocketry.

    I'm not trying to emulate him. I'm not necessarily planning on going into aerospace either, though it's definitely up there in my interests, particularly in the advancement of technologies that could lead to cheaper spaceflight. But, I'd guess that the competition into fields like that is a lot stiffer, which is okay. I don't have to do it. I'd like to though. Hmmm, I'll just put that in my "reach" category of jobs when I go to apply.

    Around here in Tucson, Raytheon is a popular internship location for engineering students. Maybe I should decide on aerospace instead of mechanical engineering and intern there.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  9. Feb 1, 2013 #8
    There is a LOT of creativity involved in engineering, although as previous posters commented, it depends a lot on job to job and company to company. If you're working in design or test engineering there is a lot of creativity required.

    In my job (I'm an electronics design engineer) I have to be creative literally every day. I love it.

    As for Tucson, Raytheon Missile Systems hires more EEs than MEs or AreoEs. I was recruited by them and the recruiter told me this (so take it with a grain of salt!). Also, Texas Instruments has a really big facility near the airport.

    I love engineering, and if you can stay on the design or test side, you can have a very creative career. The only thing I would worry about in a big place like Raytheon is a lot of the engineers end up being clerks. Beware.
  10. Feb 4, 2013 #9
    There is process, but people forget how that process got there in the first place.

    I am a controls engineer for a large water and sewer utility. We live by process because we are a true 24 hour operation. To make matters even more interesting, we are at our most active at night. Speaking as one who has been there, only habit and policy keeps you from doing something truly stupid in the wee hours of the night. You can not depend upon situational awareness 24 hours a day.

    That said, those regulations, policies, and habits didn't spring up overnight. I helped make them by examining where things went wrong and developing new ways to avoid those problems.

    When I was younger, I too wanted to build the hottest, fastest, highest tech whatever I could imagine. I found out later that such things are nice only to the extent that they actually work. Often they don't. If you are fortunate, you may have a chance to learn from these mistakes.

    In our business, we have public safety at risk. We can not afford many mistakes. Elon Musk is in a business where risks are accepted, but are also known to be dangerous.

    There is a big difference between designing a rocket and designing an airliner. In the latter, even minor improvements, such as the battery in a 787, can have dire consequences if they go wrong. Your creativity is applied to keep the risks acceptable while still getting the job done more efficiently.

    Like carlgrace, I love engineering. And when you get really good at it, you too can write and review the very standards that other engineers will use. I say this with the experience of having done this for the last six years: It can be very arcane, tedious, and difficult to imagine all the difference scenarios that your standard could be applied to; but it is also very rewarding to see your name on a significant document that others refer to.

    Engineering is not just about creativity, but also about leadership. The hottest, fastest, most powerful things are not the only goals we seek...
  11. Feb 4, 2013 #10
    Lol I just want to solve problems.

    My goals aren't so dreamy/high tech as they are about making a contribution to society in an area that I find interesting.

    I don't care really about "high tech." I don't think I have since early high school, actually. I do care about being able to approach a creative problem in an interesting way.

    I take interest in things because they work, regardless of how "advanced" they are. At one point I wanted to become an architect from an urban planning perspective, since I had ideas about how I would lay things out such that things functioned much more efficiently than the grid system and would save energy and the residents money.

    When I take fascination in what Musk has done, I look at two things: the price reduction he's achieved so far and his success rate. I don't need to work in aerospace.

    I'm more pragmatic than I seem to be when you see that opening post, and I think it's because my conception of "the process" is rather poor, given that I lack experience in the field.

    And, thanks to the posters for clearing up what that is, the fact that it exists and that the job in and of itself requires creativity, as long as I stay in design and/or testing.
  12. Feb 5, 2013 #11

    If you go into engineering there is a good chance you wont be doing anything creative for the first few years, unless you get into a development program where you are paid to get your masters within the company. A friend of mine who got into EEDP at GE said he's working on some great projects and he's only been there a few months.

    You could always start your own firm too. But you need investors and people that think you know what you are doing and luck and financial skills and more luck in this economy.
  13. Feb 5, 2013 #12
    Note as Aero51 says, you can find hands-on jobs. There are a spectrum of jobs out there that range from nearly 100% field work to nearly 100% desk work. Like you, I don't enjoy desk work. I want to see my creations working. I want to know what breaks on them. I want to learn from my mistakes and oversights.

    Nevertheless, in your first job, desk work is unavoidable. I strongly recommend you "apprentice yourself" to some engineering work in a field that interests you. Find a mentor and learn. If you think you know everything you needed to learn from your college education, you are sadly mistaken. That just gets your foot in the door. It takes us at least a year just to show a knowledgeable, experienced, and competent engineer how things are done. by whom, and where. There are safety classes, purchasing policy classes, and a whole mess of other routine company-specific educational requirements. And if you are fresh out of college, expect to spend at least three to five years getting up to speed on the hows, wheres, whys, and all that.

    Unless you did some totally awesome projects in college, nobody in their right mind is going to throw resources and wide open opportunities at you.

    Another thing: investors usually want to see responsibility and certification. If are thinking of going freelance, and you haven't done so already, take the the EIT exam. Find a PE certified engineer and work with him or her. You will need the help of several registered professional engineers toward getting that PE registration.

    Keep in mind that the PE isn't so much focused on competency as it is a mark of experience and responsibility. Investors like to see that. Freelance work is much easier to sell with PE registration than without it. Note that you're hearing this from someone who used to scoff at the PE registration. I was confused at the time because I conflated it with competency. While it does convey a certain degree of competency, you can still encounter incompetence among professionals. It happens in every profession, and engineering is no different. There will always be people who, despite terrifying attacks of incompetence or stupidity, still manage to get past the certification exams.

    Good Luck!
  14. Feb 13, 2013 #13
    Here is the thing to understand about engineering. You will (hopefully) get to exercise your creativity, but in exercising your creativity you will also do lots of meticulous and repetitive work.


    Designing circuit cards is fun and creative. But then you get to checking and rechecking your point to point connections in your circuit. You have to analyze the power requirements of every chip on the board to make sure you spec the voltage regulators and other power circuitry correctly. You have to carefully read over potentially dozens of datasheets to make sure you understand all the requirements of each part, the suggest decoupling capacitors, impedance matching, etc.

    So you may get a month of really interesting design followed by two months of meticulous work.

    Software design is the same way. You can come up with really creative algorithms, system designs, neat coding tricks and elegant implementations... but then you spend time writing requirements specifications, interface control documents, design descriptions, performing unit testing, etc.
    Last edited: Feb 13, 2013
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